It’s been over 6-months since we updated our blog’s homepage with the slogan: ‘We believe in meaningful travel’. Since that point, we’ve been asked numerous times on the road: But what actually is meaningful travel?
So, we realised a blog post was needed to explain the concept.
In short, meaningful travel is focused on immersing yourselves in a community or culture and trying to get the most out of a place. It’s about respect and care for the area you’re travelling to, trying to reduce negative impact and make positive impact, without forcing it. It’s about growth, where travel becomes a way of life, if you like, rather than merely just ‘seeing’ a place.
When done well, it becomes an enriching and rewarding experience that fuels personal growth.
But it isn’t always easy.
Read on to learn more about meaningful travel and how it can enrich your trips and help you grow.
What Meaningful Travel is All About
I know there are a lot of buzzwords out there on the internet nowadays. At first sight, ‘meaningful travel’ might seem one of them. But bear with me, because we truly believe it’s something that every traveller should consider to some extent.
Meaningful travel is about seeking travel experiences that enrich both you and the place you visit in some way. This enrichment might be social, environmental, or economic. Different advocates of meaningful travel take different angles on this.
But what’s important is a conscious effort to understand the impact you make on a place and to make that impact meaningful for everyone involved.
Personally, I’ve thought a lot about meaningful travel recently and how to achieve it. In many ways, it’s an ideal to strive towards and we’re all going to slip sometimes — this is part of being human.
Still, the United World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) has estimated that by 2030 we’ll have over 1.8 billion international travellers. That’s over 1/5th of the world’s population. If we all flock to the same old tourist resorts looking for the same old experiences, then we’re going to have a huge social problem.
Meaningful travel is a way to combat this. And I personally believe travelling this way is much more fun.
The Dark Side of Tourism
Before going into my own ideas about meaningful travel, I wanted to talk about some of the negative impact caused by tourism today. Sadly, this is due to the fact that a lot of information isn’t presented to us travellers. The kind of stuff that would absolutely appall us if we knew what was going on underneath the surface.
If you’d asked me ten years ago, I would have told you: sure, I want to ride an elephant. I’d already ridden on a horse and a camel and elephants just seemed exotic and cool. It seemed the kind of thing Indiana Jones would do and who wouldn’t want to be Indy?
But I while I dreamed of riding an elephant, there were so many things I didn’t know. Like that elephants have weak spines and so can’t handle weight on their bodies like horses or camels can. And that they haven’t been domesticated like horses and camels, and they undergo unspeakable cruelty to prep them for the purpose of riding. Also that the guys who drive these elephants (e.g. Thai Mahoots) tend to be paid despicable wages and many of them lead pretty horrible lives.
Elephant tourism is one of the most cited examples of tourism’s negative impact on a location, but there are plenty of others. One that comes to mind happens near our current base in Hanoi in the Vietnamese village of Le Mat, where you can eat the beating heart of a cobra.
I’m not against people eating snake, although the way they are slaughtered raises certain questions about animal cruelty.
But I am against endangered species like the king cobra, being used for this purpose and for the snake wine trade.
Sadly, a lot of the literature on Le Mat endorses this practice, without giving the whole picture. But if we knew the king cobra was on the IUCN red list for vulnerable and endangered species, how many of us travellers would approve?
This is why it’s important to have a roadmap, I feel. Something we can aspire to in order to make us better, more meaningful travellers.
The Three Tenets of Meaningful Travel
We like to focus on three things when we travel: integration, responsibility and growth. We also strongly disagree with the wealth of media that poses travel as a selfish endeavour. It doesn’t have to be, as I shall demonstrate.
You see all three principles involve consideration on how to benefit both the traveller and the local community. If the benefit from the exchange isn’t mutual, then it fails to be meaningful.
If the traveller gets the majority of the benefit, then this encourages exploitation in the local community, as has happened with the Thai indigenous longneck tribe. Or, need I mention sex tourism.
If the resort gets all the benefit (e.g. tourist traps) then this can lead to economical imbalance and leave the traveller feeling miserable.
Therefore, a balance is essential. I’ve designed these three principles to take this into account.
Integration means involving yourself with the local community as much as possible to try and make friends. This could involve among other things:
- learning the language
- interacting with the locals
- eating and drinking locally
- learning as much as you can of the culture (both while there and beforehand).
It doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding other travellers or expats. Travellers met upon the road can become lifelong friends and their stories can enlighten other travellers. But I do believe that travellers should be wary about how they interact with the community when traveling with others or meeting as a group.
Integration is about bridging the gap between the ‘us and them’ philosophy that often emerges between expats and locals. It’s about making an effort to make friends in the local community and build meaningful connections.
This way, you can learn about local culture while teaching locals a little bit about your own.
Classes are a great way to do this. Language exchange meetups are another. For example, we attended several times the TENGO language exchange in Granada (no longer running, unfortunately). Here we got a chance to interact with both locals and expats alike.
Also, don’t neglect the simplest of interactions. Even an exchange of smiles can be incredibly valuable to both sides involved.
Approaching travels with an open mind really helps build meaningful travel experiences. Also, don’t worry if you don’t speak the language: gestures can take you a long way.
It’s impossible to travel the world without making some kind of impact. Responsibility is about minimising the negative impact and trying to bring as much positive impact as possible.
This doesn’t mean trying to enforce personal views in a community, which can often do more harm than good. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and people on the far-flung corners of the world have their own influences and belief systems.
I’ve met travellers who carry with them a weight of entitlement. They seem to think that because they were treated in a certain way back home, then they should be treated the same way in a foreign country. But the world doesn’t work this way, which consequently makes it more interesting to explore.
Responsibility instead means trying to learn a little about the local etiquette and respecting that. You don’t have to prostrate in a temple if your back can’t take it. But if the locals do it, then it’s also respectful to take off your shoes (and socks in some countries).
Responsibility also means being respectful of the environment. Not littering, not doing anything that might cause fires, and where possible taking advice from the local community. Also, being careful of things like electricity and water usage in resource-poor areas.
You’re likely to encounter some tough questions as you travel, like: should I give money to that beggar or would I be supporting a local scam? This is where research often comes in handy. If, on the ground, you don’t know, simply use your best judgement (as we did when deciding how much money to give to a temple in Yangon, Myanmar), then research later so you can adjust your behaviour next time.
Part of the skill of meaningful travel is learning how to make more responsible decisions. It’s an art. And the thing about art is, you get better with practice.
The final meaningful travel principle is that of growth. Travel is a powerful endeavour that can help you grow physically, emotionally and spiritually. I think this is also one of the reasons travel is often seen as selfish. Because, hey, you’re doing this for yourself right? To become worldly, and experienced, and have great stories to tell back home.
But here’s the thing. The more experience you gain as a traveller, the more you can enlighten others with your stories. You can become more endearing to the locals who meet you. Perhaps some might see you as wise. And so you might inspire them on to do great things.
If just your presence in a country inspired someone to start a new business, or propose to their loved one, or finally reconcile with their parents, wouldn’t that be meaningful?
That’s one of the greatest benefits of meaningful travel. If you do it well, you simply being there can become a huge catalyst for change.
I also believe that the positive impact meaningful travellers make on a community should be growth focused. In a Destinations Show 2017 talk, Rickshaw Travel talked about empowering people to be ‘agents in their own destiny’.
There are some great points raised in this video and it’s worth watching the whole thing. It’s also great to see that there are travel agencies out there like Rickshaw Travel, specializing in meaningful travel experiences.
Volunteering is a great way to embrace meaningful growth experiences. We volunteered in Tenerife recently. A lady there was setting up an international study abroad program (to be the only one on the island) and she needed some help with things like business plans and pitch decks. In return, we stayed in the Tenerife Midlands — a stunning and lesser visited part of the island and had many chances to interact with the locals, including an older man who ran a winery and vineyard.
Be careful with volunteering programs, though, as there are a lot of scams out there. Do your due diligence first: Google the company name followed by the word ‘scam’, check their accreditation schemes using the same method. Unfortunately, fake volunteering programs can have an incredibly negative impact on the local economy.
Hovos is a great place to look for more personal volunteering programs and gain free accommodation in exchange.
How We Travel Meaningfully
For us, travel is a way of life. But at the same time, we’re not your typical traveller. You certainly wouldn’t call us vacationers.
Instead, we like to stay in a place for as long as possible and take time to get to know its people and the culture. Right now, we’re living and working in Vietnam: myself as a digital nomad copywriter and Ola as an English teacher. We eat local wherever possible, are making an effort to learn the language (although due to limited time I’m not putting in as much as I would like), and we’re trying our best to become a part of the local community.
To give an example, we spend a lot of time working on our blog and other projects in Manzi. This is a local coffee shop run by a Vietnamese couple, as well as a centre for Vietnamese art. In fact, they call it a collaborative art space. We love supporting this place, because we know that the owners put a lot love into it themselves. One of the baristas there is even happy to teach us a little Vietnamese.
Another meaningful travel experience we had was when we visited the South Shaolin Temple in Putian, China (and later another in Fuqing). We went to this lesser visited temple with a friend, and as soon as we got there one of the local volunteers stepped up to show us around.
Other than our friend, no one there spoke much English. But we still ended up learning a lot about the place and we had a chance to tell our stories too (with our friend’s help as a translator). At the same time, we were respective of the culture in there, didn’t take any photos of indoor Buddhas as requested and paid our respects through prostrating at the local shrine. It truly was a meaningful experience.
How to Become a Meaningful Traveller
You may or you may not have heard the term returnism in the media at some point. They’ve coined this to mean the phenomenon of vacationers returning to the same place year after year. In fact, a 2015 study in the UK found that 91 per cent of Britons prefer to return to a familiar destination over somewhere new.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything wrong to going back to the same place. But if that place has stopped losing its meaning for you, it might be worth considering other destinations, or at least other ways of seeing a place.
There’s often a lot that’s hidden between the cracks of even some of the world’s most touristy destinations and to discover these things can be truly enlightening.
I know a lot of us just want to go on holiday to relax, and that’s fine — we all need to take some time out from our busy lives now and again. What I want to encourage, though, is for more people to examine the impact their travel has on the local economy and find ways to make it meaningful for both yourself and the people (and wildlife) at the destination.
In many ways, meaningful travel is a very personal journey that involves looking within for what fascinates you. It’s like being a journalist in a way — you look for a unique angle for your journey and then you pursue it. After that, it’s nothing more than a continuous cycle of research and trying out new things, while always keeping the positive in mind.
Travelling does not have to be a selfish endeavour. But it’s you who has to choose not to make it that way.
Thanks for reading my article about meaningful travel. If you have any thoughts yourself on how to make travel meaningful, I’d really like to hear them in the comments below.
To be honest, there’s so much more I want to write about this, but this article is already pretty long. Which is why I’m writing a book on meaningful travel.
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